Published: March 18, 2021 By

American Indians and archaeologists have had a long and often fractious history. Carlton Shield Chief Gover is trying to change that.

Just after World War II, Carlton Shield Chief Gover’s (PhDAnth’22) grandfather was facing an uncertain future in Oklahoma. Philip Gover was a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma, an American Indian nation outside Tulsa. He had lost his arm fighting in Italy and was struggling to complete his undergraduate degree.

That’s when one of his professors pulled him aside and delivered the blunt assessment: “What is a one-armed Indian going to do without an education in this country?”

Philip Gover doubled down on his studies. He finished his degree in elementary education, then went on to teach English to Navajo children — carving a path between the worlds of the Pawnee, or Chaticks-si-Chaticks (which translates to “Men of Men”), and the Chaticks-Taka (“white man”).

“My grandfather was born in a tent in 1906, wasn’t even a U.S. citizen until the 1920s,” Shield Chief Gover said. “My family has always strived to be worthy of his sacrifices.”

It’s a tightrope act that Shield Chief Gover continues to walk two generations later. He’s a PhD student in the CU Boulder anthropology department. The researcher is among the first Pawnee citizens to ever pursue graduate training in archaeology.

The road hasn’t always been easy. As Shield Chief Gover explained: “Archaeology is an inherently colonial practice.” But the young researcher joins a growing number of Indigenous archaeologists who are working to change that — embracing knowledge from both Indigenous communities and the halls of American academia.

Archaeology has also given Shield Chief Gover a way to connect with the past, present and future of his people. Since coming to CU Boulder, for example, he’s worked at the Lynch Site, a 13th-14th century town in eastern Nebraska that was once home to the ancestors of today’s Pawnee.

“I get to walk on the same surfaces that my people walked on and pick up their things,” Shield Chief Gover said.

Stories of the Past

Born in New Mexico, Shield Chief Gover moved to the suburbs of Washington, D.C., when he was in second grade.

“As a young kid, I was always doing Indian stuff like going to powwows,” Shield Chief Gover said. “I never saw myself as different until I moved to Northern Virginia.”

Today, he sees that difference as an asset. As a graduate student in Wyoming and now at CU, he’s made the case that archaeologists need to do a better job of incorporating Indigenous oral traditions into their research.

He touched on the Pawnee story of Closed-Man — a leader who, according to tradition, gathered communities of American Indians in what is today Nebraska to found the Skidi Federation, one of the four tribes that comprise the modern-day Pawnee Nation.

Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of the cultural shift that followed roughly 600 years ago at places like the Lynch Site. It’s marked by a transition from communities living in small, squareshaped homes to much larger earth lodge towns. But spoken stories fill in details that are beyond the scope of those chronological records: the names of people like Closed-Man, why the groups came together to form a federation and, even more broadly, what these early Americans thought and what motivated them.

“Archaeology is really about trying to figure out human behavior,” Shield Chief Gover said. “But people’s thoughts and beliefs, their dreams, don’t preserve in the archaeological record. If we talk to the descendants of these communities, we can find a modern analogue for those questions.”

Two Worlds

Roger Echo-Hawk (Hist’90; MA’94), a Pawnee citizen and historian living in Boulder, agreed. He’s collaborated with Shield Chief Gover, and they both argue that taking oral traditions seriously can make archaeological research better.

“The more we know about history, the more ways we have to be ourselves,” EchoHawk said. “If we just have the archaeology or oral traditions, those are interesting insights. But together they tell a richer story.”

As Shield Chief Gover has pursued his graduate training, he’s also tried to spend more time in Oklahoma visiting his relatives. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the Pawnee Nation in Pawnee, Oklahoma. And his family, motivated by the life of his grandfather, has been supportive of his choices.

On one such visit, Shield Chief Gover’s uncle gave him a piece of advice that the young researcher has taken to heart.

“You come from two worlds,” his uncle told him. “Archaeology has taught you the Chaticks-Taka way, the white man way. You need to come back home to Pawnee to learn about the Chaticks-si-Chaticks way, the Pawnee way.”

Photos by Matt Tyrie